I think all Mali PCVs will agree that kids are both a saving grace and also a menace during their service and honestly, half the time they are both at the same time. It is impossible to integrate in a village without getting to know the kids. In Malian society, if you spend time with kids, their parents will immediately like you, as a matter of fact, they are almost required to like you according to their culture. Not only is getting to know the kids important to gain their parent’s respect, but if you don’t earn the respect of the kids themselves then they will torment you non-stop, and they are tireless in this regard. You get called toubabou constantly and they never seem to learn your name, they peep through the window when you’re asleep, they mock you, and ask you for your clothes and for money. There are many times when even after earning their respect, you wake up early one Saturday morning, go outside, and find that they are in the process of picking all the un-ripe vegetables in your garden essentially destroying all the hard work you put in for the past 2 months. But these early frustrations are easily made up for when they become your close friends and stop by to chat. One of my most notable conversations was when another volunteer was over and we spent over an hour talking about martial arts and convincing the kids that the other volunteer was a ninja. Also, in Malian culture you can choose anybody that is younger than you and send them to get you food or tea or just about anything you want. Although you can do this any time, when you know the kids, they do it a lot more willingly and quickly. So, when you are hanging out reading on a lazy weekend and you don’t want to get up for breakfast, you can call a kid over and “ci” (send him on a mission) him to get you something. On bad days, all it takes is for kids to do something silly or get a baby to sit on your lap to brighten your day. Every volunteer probably also has a story about winning over a baby or small child. When meeting a baby or child for the first time, and Malians think it’s hysterical, they are frightened by white people and cry whenever they see one. Naturally, this leads to a game where the mother turns the baby around to face you, at which point the baby cries and the mother laughs and comforts it until it stops crying. Then she turns the baby around again, the baby cries, the mother laughs and so on and so forth. Volunteers try really hard to win children over and make them stop crying. Depending on the age of the child, this can be really challenging.
My host family in Tominian often have people over, but one woman, Lavielle, is almost like a daughter to them. She’s a teacher in a nearby village but she comes over once a month to visit and whenever she comes over she brings her one year old daughter, named Mami with her. For the past year and a half, I have been trying to win over Mami. I tried making faces at her, I tried tickling her, I tried picking her up and nothing seemed to work. It was always the same scenario over and over again: I would walk in the house, greet everyone, call our her name, and as soon as she saw me she would bury herself in her mother’s lap and everyone would laugh. Then, after a couple minutes, she would forget I was there, crawl around, see me, and start crying… and everyone would laugh. My first breakthrough was a couple months ago during watermelon season. Mami loves watermelons. So every time I came over for lunch, I would take a small piece of watermelon and hand it to her, always trying to get her to crawl a little bit closer to me than the last time. Very suspiciously, she’d reach out as far as possible without leaving her mother’s lap to grab it. These were very minor victories but it seemed we couldn’t make any more progress. After watermelon season came papaya season. Mami likes papayas less than watermelons, but she was still willing to make a small effort. Then one day, I waved as I was leaving, and she waved back. Encouraged, I went closer, but she hid again, clearly hoping that by waving I would leave faster, rather than come back. Finally, during the currently waning carrot season, about a week ago, I hopelessly held out my hand for maybe the hundredth time, and this time, she greeted me. Everybody in the house was so happy and laughed so much that she started smiling and did it again. During the past few days, not only do I look forward to having lunch with my host family, but I look forward to playing with Mami and watching her laugh with everyone whenever she grabs my hand to say hi. Actually, she went from hiding to smiling and bouncing a bit when I come by.
The one on the left is one of my favorite kids. We can't actually communicate because she only speaks Bomu, but she understands Bambara so we get by.